The Elasticity of Memories

We all love to tell stories. And by that I don’t mean to speak on behalf of the writers, clandestinely smuggling myself into the group. On the contrary, I’m speaking on behalf of us non-writers, wanna-be-writers, poseur writers — everyone who does not seem to have a blanket license to tell stories. Irrespective of such a license, if there were one, we all love to tell stories to right people, and sometimes to the wrong people, much to a mutual displeasure. Still, that urge to tell stories is one of the things that makes us human.

But what separates those who just tell stories from those who narrate, who mesmerize us with their accounts of everyday banality, who make us listen spellbound, who make us laugh out loud, who make us cry, who make us want to say: if only I could tell a story like that?

Do those who reuse their memories, their experiences — in their writings, or in conversations over coffee, or with friends/family, or during random encounters on long distance trains, or just to kill time while waiting at a queue — color their memories with different palettes? Are we, the others, mostly bad painters who can’t for their life find the right colors, the right contrasts, the right textures? Or are our memories dull to being with? Are they colorless, and what is needed is not faithful rendering of those grey memories, but a keen sense of coloring, of dressing up the ordinary.

Does it mean, then, that the honest story tellers are bad story tellers (unless they’re blessed/cursed with very colorful memories)? Of course, I don’t want to accuse the masters of being dishonest, but maybe they are a little generous with the shade card of truth. However tempting it is to use that accusation, though, when we look at our own stories that we tell, again and again, over months and years, we’d probably see ample evidence of that same generosity on our parts. Art of story telling is the art of ever-so-subtly changing the details, of making memories more interesting than they are.

A man can tell a thousand lies
I’ve learned my lesson well
Hope I live to tell
The secret I have learned, ’till then
It will burn inside of me [1]

Is that deliberate? Or is that automatic? And like a story changes when it moves from one narrator to another, over endless replays of the game of Chinese Whispers, doesn’t it also change when it moves from one audience to another, even with the same narrator? Is it because our memories are elastic, and we make out of them what we want to, without even being aware of that distortion — an act of a subconscious will? Or is it that our memories are so fragile that to arrive in one piece they have to patch and re-patch themselves, like the poor people have to patch their clothes, all the times, to stop them from opening at seams, and elsewhere?

It is not like it’s only an individual memory that suffers (or shares) this fate. Even collective memories are just a common denominator of our changing, elastic, individual memories, already morphed into a reality-inspired-fiction. The thing is, our childhood memories are folk lores that we collectively chose to retell, subtly manipulated by the keepers of those lores. The keepers who, thanks to their unquestioning love, typically are biased towards re-tellings that shield us. Try telling your mom that her  memory of some instance in your childhood is not faithful, and you’ll see a sanctimonious hurt that will be hard to heal. But what is a faithful memory? Is there such a thing? And if there is one, is it an exception or a norm?

I tell stories from my past, often. And I’m sure if someone recorded and replayed them to me, I’d barely recognize the recorded memories.  But a retelling is not necessarily a better telling. It’s a telling that may show you in a better light, at the cost of the story that is too monochromatic. Do those who master the art of re-vitalizing memories put their stories before themselves? Does that selfless, and yet very selfish at the same time, act liberate their stories, and make them more charismatic, more alive? They probably do.

Meanwhile, those of us, who do not have that license to tell stories, must struggle with the banality of our retelling, and futility of our instincts for both authenticity and self-importance.  Like those wandering dervishes, we need to be the story we want to tell. Our memories are elastic enough to allow for that.


[1] Snippets from lyrics of Madonna’s Live to Tell.

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2 thoughts on “The Elasticity of Memories

  1. transcribingmemory says:

    Stephen King said that “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” When I wanted to start writing memoir I lamented because I couldn’t remember vivid details of those memories. Someone liberated me and told me to lie, to fill in the blanks, as long as the story itself were true.

  2. asuph says:

    Hi. Thanks for your lovely comment. I recall the same sentiment in David Benioff’s City of Thieves introduction.

    When he was finished telling his stories, I questioned him about various details—names, locations, weather conditions on certain days. He tolerated this for a while, but eventually he leaned forward and pressed the Stop button on the tape recorder.

    “It was a long time ago,” he said. “I don’t remember what I was wearing. I don’t remember if the sun came out.”
    “I just want to make sure I get everything right.”
    “You won’t.”
    “This is your story. I don’t want to fuck with it.”
    “David—”
    “A couple of things still don’t make sense to me—”
    “David,” he said. “You’re a writer. Make it up.”

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